Thugs' Liberation Army

Monday 4 Jul 2011

Baltagiyya (sing. baltagi) literally means wielders of the balta: the cudgel or bludgeon with which neighbours are terrorised and money extracted from passers by. They are to be distinguished from the by now extinct futuwwat or strongmen with which Naguib Mahfouz's novels are filled: honour-bound patriarchs just as concerned with protecting their constituency, at least in theory, as collecting tribute money. Awkwardly for a celestially reactionary middle class, baltagiyya are also by and large identical with the slum-residing sub-proletariat; in that capacity (not only systematically marginalised and abused but also regularly deployed, slave-like, by the police and electoral candidates), they have always been part of the urban underworld.

When protests broke out, egged on by the idiocy and brutality of the police, it was only natural that the baltagiyya should be rallied on the side of a xenophobia- and "foreign conspiracy"-mongering regime, whether as violent "supporters" of Mubarak, informal (armed) troops, or eventually -- and I mean no offense to anyone, but it is true there is some overlap -- church-torching "Salafi" disturbers of the peace. Many of them were also on the side of the protests, however, and as such abided by the majority's principle of keeping it peaceful. Of course a good portion of the proletariat on the street are practically indistinguishable from the subproletariat; at a protest anyone, even a zealous young aristocrat, can be "mistaken" for a baltagi.

Since 11 February it has been on the basis of their identity as baltagiyya -- that ever more elusive metaphysical essence -- and not something they might actually be doing or failing to do, that the brutalisation of protesters up to and including unconstitutional military trials has been justified. The anti-riot work of the police was done by the army until, last week, Central Security struck back fiercer and better equipped than before. Amazingly, it is to their being baltagiyya or infiltrated by baltagiyya that the vast majority of the pro-25 January constituency alluded once news of last Thursday's violence started to spread. Taught by their army that baltagiyya are not the people, Egyptians are willing to condone systematic, Habib El Adly-style repression against themselves.

Then you begin to wonder who the true baltagiyya are: proletariat and subproletariat protesters whatever their intentions, or the middle-class backers of a demonstrably criminal police as yet unpunished for killing, on three out of 18 days, nearly as many peaceful protesters as those killed in Tiananmen Square by the People's Liberation Army in one?

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